BalletMet with Columbus Symphony Orchestra – Romeo and Juliet
April 28-30, 2017
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Since taking over BalletMet’s artistic leadership in 2010, Edwaard Liang has molded the company into more of a contemporary ballet powerhouse with ballets by himself, Christopher Wheeldon, Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, Ma Cong and others. With the Columbus premiere of his Romeo and Juliet, April 28-30 at the Ohio Theatre however, Liang asserted BalletMet’s might in classical story ballets as well with a next-level production usually reserved for ballet companies twice its size.
Originally created on Tulsa Ballet in 2012, the 3-act production had opera house-style sets and costumes by David Walker to go with the rich playing of Sergei Prokofiev’s iconic score for the ballet by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Stafford Wilson and some of the best classical dancing I’ve seen from the company. In the ballet’s final performance on April 30 however, one light shone above the rest, that of retiring company star Adrienne Benz whose moving performance as Juliet stands with any given anywhere in recent years.
True to Shakespeare’s play and the storyline structure found in most high-level ballet productions of Romeo and Juliet, Liang’s adaptation moved briskly in choreography that was engaging and descriptive. The ballet’s scenes not only told the star-crossed lovers’ familiar story, but captured nicely the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s fictional Verona, Italy setting and its colorful renaissance-era inhabitants.
In typical fashion, Act I introduced us to the feuding Capulet and Montague families including male protagonist Romeo (David Ward), his friend Mercutio (Andres Estevez) and his cousin Benvolio (Kohhei Kuwana) as well as to Juliet’s cousin and antagonist Tybalt, portrayed with icy malice by first-year company member Austin Moholt-Siebert.
Frivolity, swordplay and the flirtations of young men and women made for a vibrant opening scene. Most interesting were Liang’s use of three gruff but sexy harlots danced by Kristie Latham, Karen Wing and Sarah Wolf who, when they weren’t pushing around the villagers, fawned over Romeo and his compatriots and even engaged in some of the sword fighting.
Later in the Act, the ballet shifted scenes to Juliet’s bedroom were we get our first glimpse of Benz as Juliet being playful with her nurse and confident (Leigh Lijoi) while making preparations for that evening’s masked ball. Benz appeared to have leapt from the pages of Shakespeare’s play. Her youthful exuberance and joy made you fall in love with her character instantly and her acting skills and technical prowess were stunning.
As in most Romeo and Juliet ballets, the ball was a lavish affair with the aforementioned costumes and sets to match. The trio of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio looking to crash the ball were a bit like the three musketeers in their cocky, cavalier attitudes toward those arriving for the ball. Ward as Romeo appeared straight out of central casting. His princely looks and adroit dancing seemed to charm the audience almost as much as it did Juliet in the scene which played out as most do with the two meeting and falling for each other instantly and Romeo and cohorts clashing with Tybalt and Juliet’s would-be suitor Paris, danced with nobility by BalletMet dancer Attila Bongar who was also making his final appearance with the company.
Bathed in golden light and dreamlike, the famous “balcony scene” that followed to end Act I dripped with romance which Benz and Ward let wash over them as the two lovers who then got drunk on each other’s company. Within this beautiful setting Liang choreographed a beauty of a pas de deux that contained a wellspring of fabulous lifts and carries to go with the character’s unbridled joy which Benz and Ward captured to perfection in their exquisite dancing of it.
Act II opened with us back in the village’s marketplace with the requisite frolicking and celebrations. Wing, as the village’s most brazen harlot, once again made her presence felt strutting about with the kind of aggressiveness she displayed in the lead role of Carmen in Sansano’s Carmen.maquia in 2016. The act continued with Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio playfully teasing Juliet’s nurse who came to marketplace to deliver a note to Romeo from Juliet about meeting in secret with Friar Lawrence (David Spialter) to wed. It was another charming scene in a ballet full of them that provided a wonderful counterpoint to the ballet’s drama and tragedy.
As with any great tragedy, happiness comes at a cost and in one of the ballet’s most climactic moments Estevez as Mercutio, who was also making his final appearance with BalletMet, delivered a wonderfully acted and danced performance where he was both hero and jester battling and ultimately perishing at the hands of Tybalt in a swordfight. For his part, Moholt-Siebert as Tybalt nearly stole the scene with a “Joffrey Baratheon” from Game of Thrones kind of contemptibility.
The act then ended with Romeo taking revenge on Tybalt over Mercutio’s death in an unconscious fit of rage, and then guilt, as Lady Capulet (Carly Wheaton) crazed and bereft, stormed the stage and whipped her headdress into the wings in a somewhat over-the-top reaction to Tybalt’s death; suggesting perhaps there relationship was much more than just aunt and nephew.
The ballet’s third act continued the familiar tale with Romeo and Juliet waking in Juliet’s bedroom after assumingly consummating their secret marriage with Romeo still haunted by Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths and Juliet not wanting Romeo to go. The pair engaged in another marvelously-crafted and passionate pas de deux. Later in the scene, after Romeo’s departure, Juliet’s parents forced the issue of her marriage to Paris and Benz showed more of her brilliance conveying in her every step, gesture and heartbreaking tear, the very essence of Shakespeare’s words on the young heroine’s torn state of emotion.
After seeking solace from Friar Lawrence who gave her a potion to fake her own death, Juliet returned to her bedroom where she was visited by the ghosts of Mercutio, as sort of an angel one shoulder telling her not to take the potion, and Tybalt, the devil on her other shoulder urging to take it, which she does.
The ballet’s final scene at the Capulet family tomb brought the tragic tale to its inevitable conclusion as Romeo and Paris faced off in a knife fight at the alter Juliet’s seemingly lifeless body lay with Romeo the lone survivor. Liang then wrapped up the story and the lover’s fates with a rarely used ending in U.S. productions where Romeo sees Juliet wake up from her fake-death coma seconds before he succumbs to the very real poison he just drank to be with her in the afterlife. What must he be thinking in that brief moment? Ward gave us both elation and resignation in seconds it took for that reunion to play out. Benz then true to her character’s grief and determination to forever be with Romeo grabbed Paris’ knife and ended her own life.
A triumph by most any standard of measure, BalletMet’s Romeo and Juliet with its brisk pacing, easy-to-follow story progression and relatable characters would surely resonate with even the most neophyte dance goer. Add to that finely constructed, world-class choreography, perhaps the best ballet score ever written played with heart by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, rich looking sets and costumes and great dancing led by the spellbinding performances of Benz and Ward, and even the most persnickety of balletomanes would have a hard time resisting the production’s allure.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.